‘We do not monitor your calls’

There were mixed reactions when the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) rebuked and arrested a boy in Mulanje who had illegally set up his own broadcasting station The move led people to debate on where to draw the line between control and promoting innovation and technology in this world of digitalisation. FATSANI GUNYA engaged Macra spectrum planning manager Dereck Kondwani who expounds on the issue of spectrum management in the country.

Kondwani: Spectrum is a national resource

Q

: To begin with, what is spectrum?

A

: These are radio waves that are used for communication. The radio spectrum ranges from three kilohertz all the way to 600 gigahertz. But when we talk of radio communication, we are only talking of radio spectrum of up to three gigahertz. That is the band which can be used for telecommunication. This is the band which Macra, through its Spectrum Management Department, is mandated to monitor.

Q

: How significant is it for Macra as a regulator to be monitoring or managing the country’s spectrum?

A

: First of all, we need to understand that spectrum is a national resource. It is, therefore, supposed to be jealously guarded from unscrupulous users. Apart from being used for commercial telecommunication, Internet and broadcasting services, spectrum is also used for other government functions like in defence, air control (aviation) services and again by a State’s intelligence systems.

Q

: In simpler terms, how can the interference of the spectrum compromise the said government functions?

A

: The threat to a nation’s defence system, through interference of the country’s spectrum, does not only come from outside countries. It is much more common to have such interference from within the country. Just a few months ago, we managed to note one guy from Mulanje who just came up with his own FM transmitter out of the blue. That is dangerous because as one is making that FM transmitter, they can easily mess up some calibrations and end up operating in another band.

A very good example is that of the air traffic control systems that work immediately above the FM band, which stops at 108 while the air control systems operate from 118. Now, should one make a mistake in calculations of the values of the inductors and capacitors being used, they can easily interfere with the air control systems and your guess is as good as mine in terms of the dangers of such discrepancies. This may also inconvenience some existing and licensed operators in the country. Should someone operate without being licensed by the authority, then they may be operating on a frequency that was already assigned to some operator within the band. This is the illegal interference we are talking about.

Q: Does Malawi have enough monitoring infrastructure to protect its spectrum?

A

: I would say so. In fact, Macra has been upgrading its systems in this regard. Previously, we had only five stations for monitoring of spectrum across the country. That included two in Blantyre and one each in Balaka, Lilongwe and Mzuzu. Today, we have 19 and we are still panning to have more as we still have some dark spots here and there. It would be ideal to have about 30 of such stations to completely have it all under control. I also have to quickly point out that we have a mobile van that help us spot any illegal interference that may have been missed by the said monitoring stations. We used to monitor up to three Giga Hertz, but due to the system upgrade, we can now monitor up to eight Giga Hertz. This is a very big change in terms of securing our spectrum. Apart from upgrading the frequency band, Macra has also increased our coverage range, now reaching as far as Likoma and Chizumulu islands. All this puts us in a better position to manage our spectrum properly, and to make it free of unscrupulous use from illegal users.

Q

: There are perceptions that Macra eavesdrops on private phone conversations through its spectrum management wing. What is your comment?

A

: That is not true. We do not monitor telephone conversations. It only covers the radio interface, like who is using what frequency and to check if the use is to the book or not. It is all about ensuring operators are working in a legally accepted environment. It is mainly about compliance. We do not go beyond our mandate to start monitoring phone conversations.

Q

: What challenges are choking the effective monitoring of the country’s spectrum?

A

: The biggest challenge, which also stands to be the biggest threat to our spectrum, is the illegal usage by unlicensed users. Recently, we have had a number of cases where users without a license would set up their radio frequencies, thereby inconveniencing the licensed operator all the more. Luckily, we are always active and normally, we catch the culprits the moment they come through the radar. It is a criminal offence and is punishable by law. Any illegal and misguided interference to the air waves could result in serious security and safety breaches but also compromise the quality of services such as telecommunications and broadcasting.

Q

: Reports indicate that the FM band is almost full on the country’s spectrum. What does this mean  for additional radio stations?

A

: I would say the spectrum was indeed full and we immediately embarked on a project called FM Band Refining. Through it, we engaged a consultant from the United Kingdom in the name of Inter Connect whose main objective was to come up with ways on how best we can accommodate more radio stations on the FM band. The project was a success. The consultant submitted his report three weeks ago and we are already working on it. We are now working on creating that space to accommodate a lot others. In fact, existing radio stations should anticipate having their frequencies altered as we do this. Also, we are looking at transmission power. We can confirm that some radio stations are using high powered transmitters.

Q

: But others may argue that the Mulanje man who set up his own radio station was supposed to be encouraged, not condemned. Why was he arrested?

A

: There are two aspects to the story. The first one is that he was an illegal broadcaster. He was not authorised to broadcast, according to the laws of the land. Without applying for the licence, we could not guess the content of his broadcasts. Remember how the Rwandan Genocide was incited? It was through a radio station, right? Now, we cannot afford to have another one here. As a regulator, we felt duty-bound to act. On the spectrum part, we felt the emergence of that illegal broadcasting station posed a threat to the other existing and licensed operators. Like earlier alluded to, this can compromise quality in service delivery through such interference.

Q

: Where do we draw the line between controlling the airwaves and promoting innovation and technology in the same?

A

: Anywhere else, proper innovation has to be coordinated. In this case, if there is an innovation which will need the use of frequencies, that particular innovator has to consult Macra. The two can then evaluate the issue together and come up with the best way forward, according to existing rules and regulations. This will map the way forward on how best that particular innovation can be supported. Let me mention that we have some other frequency bands that are solely used for research. I just do not think we can deny some genuine innovative mind some space to showcase their skills. In fact, we need to encourage that to best grow the country’s socio-economic status. The key word is to coordinate.

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